By Dr Fiona Caryl.
Our new study looking at exposure of children to tobacco retailing, recently published in the journal Tobacco Control, shows that an average 10-to-11-year-old child in Scotland comes within 10m of a shop selling tobacco 43 times a week. This rises to 149 times a week for children living in the poorest areas—six times more than the 23 encounters a week experienced by children living in affluent areas. This demonstrates an unexpectedly large inequality in the amount of times children are exposed to tobacco sales. Unexpected because in the same study we showed that tobacco outlets are 2.6 times more common around the homes of children living in the most deprived areas than the least. Yet we found a six-fold difference in exposure because we used GPS trackers (fully consented and ethics-approved, of course) to follow exactly where children moved through their environments. We found that most exposure came from convenience stores (41%) and newsagents (15%) on school days, with peaks before and after school hours. At weekends, we found most exposure came from supermarkets (14%), with a peak around midday.
Why does this matter? This may not sound like a lot of exposure, and we might ask if a child is really exposed to tobacco just by being in or near a shop selling tobacco, especially after the ban on point-of-sale (POS) tobacco displays. But then we don’t actually know how many micro-exposures it takes to make a child think that smoking is a normal, acceptable and widespread behaviour rather than a major cause of premature death. Research into advertising suggests that the mere-exposure to indirect and incidental stimuli can influence attitudesnon-consciously when they’re repeatedly presented. The ban on POS tobacco displays has reduced children’s susceptibility to smoking, but children still notice tobacco on sale. In fact, recent research shows that the conspicuousness and prominence of tobacco in shops varies considerably between areas of high and low deprivation. And the difference in prominence has been increasing since the POS ban.
The difference in the number of times children in poor areas are in or near to places selling tobacco is most concerning when you consider the pathways leading people to start smoking. Most adult smokers start when they are teenagers, and the availability of tobacco products is a key factor in in why people start to smoke and why they find it hard to give-up. Our findings raise important questions about when and where tobacco products are sold and the messaging this is sending to children.